College students in the U.S. have become like Russian Jews who kept silent because they feared state retaliation if they spoke out about being persecuted. That was the view expressed Saturday night by Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Natan Sharansky at the screening of a controversial documentary depicting pro-Israel students' allegations of intimidation at the hands of Columbia University professors.
"The future leaders of American Jewry are becoming `Jews of Silence,'" Sharansky said, lamenting the fact that only a small number of Jewish students are willing to complain publicly about anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiments.
But the movie, "Columbia Unbecoming," which was produced by the David Project, a Boston-based group that promotes Israel advocacy, is a step in the opposite direction: It aims to expose both the intimidation pro-Israel students say they experience on campus and those they say are responsible. The documentary, screened at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, attracted a sell-out audience of more than 400.
"There are islands of anti-Semitism, and these islands are student campuses," said Sharansky, who visited 26 American college campuses as part of his "Back to the Campus" initiative. "And all this is done in the name of academic freedom."
At the Ivy League university in New York, each side accuses the other of intimidation, which both students and professors assert ultimately strangles academic freedom. Jewish students who have come forward with complaints say some professors, especially those in the university's Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture department (known as MEALAC), are creating an atmosphere of intolerance toward pro-Israel views and are thereby freezing public discourse in the classroom.
An Israeli studying at Columbia after completing his Israel Defense Forces service said one professor asked him how many Palestinians he has killed, and a Jewish former student said her professor told her she has no claim to the land of Israel because she has green eyes and so is "not a Semite."
For their part, the professors insist the allegations stifle their freedom to express pro-Palestinian views, with one calling it a campaign against critics of Israel. "This witch-hunt aims to stifle pluralism, academic freedom, and the freedom of expression on university campuses in order to ensure that only one opinion is permitted, that of uncritical support for the State of Israel," Prof. Joseph Massad of the Middle East department, who is one of the professors named for his anti-Israel views in the movie, wrote in his faculty page on the department Web site.
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) recently endorsed the professors' position. In a December 20 letter to Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, the organization said, "The claims of incivility of professors in their treatment of students seem, in this case, to be inextricably bound to the ideological disputes between certain professors and the students advancing these claims .... Thus, the criticism of these academics must be seen for what it is: an assault upon principles of academic freedom and upon political speech."
The NYCLU position brings to light the difficulty the film has in clarifying what the student complaints are actually about. The movie fuses few solid examples of intimidation - only some of which involved professors and the students they were teaching - with generalized complaints of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements and behavior on campus.
For instance, the film begins with one student saying she had thought classes on the Arab-Israeli conflict or Israeli-Palestinian politics would cover multiple perspectives on the issue. Providing no details to back up her claim, she asserts, "Well, I was pretty naive. It doesn't have to be balanced at Columbia." The movie also describes the defacing of posters for an Israeli film festival with swastikas, and says that a movie shown at the Palestinian film festival portrayed Israeli soldiers raping Palestinian women "as if it were factual."
Comments made by Massad at the Palestinian festival are also raised in the documentary: According to a January 2003 report in the university's student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, he likened Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "cultural views" to those of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
The movie, framed by Sharansky's introductory remarks on anti-Semitism, was well-received by an audience comprised of English-speaking immigrants and teenagers studying in Israel. Howard Green, a 64-year-old former New Yorker now living in Zichron Yaakov, compared the MEALAC professors' pro-Palestinian slant to German propaganda. Another audience member said he had expected a Holocaust survivor to get up and say, "This is the way it starts." Others described the movie as "hair-raising," "scandalous" and "frightening."
"These are the leaders of America in the next generation, and if they're going to be educated by these kinds of professors, this is not good," said Jerusalem resident Robert Goldstein, 57.
But when the audience is expected to be more antagonistic, as at the movie's first public screening at Columbia in November, the film is introduced in a different light. Rather than speak of bias against Jews or Israel, Elana Jaffe, a Columbia student involved in the film, said at a question-and-answer session after the screening in Jerusalem that she introduced the film to her fellow college students by minimizing the Israel aspect and emphasizing the ways in which "students feel denied" in the classroom.
"This documentary is about freedom of expression," Jaffe, who is studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem this semester, said she told the students. "Being silenced in a classroom can happen if you are gay or Muslim or too liberal or too conservative."
Charges of anti-Israel bias and charges of intimidation may both be well-founded, but the lack of clarity regarding the students' claims and goals exposes the movie to accusations that it is an attempt to dictate the bounds of what professors may say. That ambiguity can obscure genuine claims of professorial intimidation depicted, though not emphasized, in the film.
Some of the most salient examples students gave in the movie of physical intimidation involve George Saliba, a professor of Arabic and Islamic science in the Middle East department who students said took his class to a pro-Palestinian rally on campus.
One of his students, who did not want to divulge her identity, said she went to Saliba's office to ask him why he always referred to Israel as Palestine in class. He told her she was inconsiderate to the plight of the Palestinians. She said he began yelling about preemptive strikes and got up from his chair, asking her, "If I got up to hit you, wouldn't you hit me first?" The student said she moved her chair away from him and responded in the negative, after which Saliba kicked her out of the office. "The use of rhetoric, the use of yelling, was very uncomfortable," she said.
`You have no voice'
In another episode in the film, Lindsay Shrier, who graduated in 2003, said she approached Saliba after he showed a film in class presenting the view that Arabs have a prior claim to the land of Israel. Walking outside with her professor, Shrier told him the Jewish people have been in Israel for thousands of years. She said he told her, "`You have no voice in this debate.'"
"He came real close," she said. "He said, `See, you have green eyes.' He said, `You're not a Semite. I'm a Semite. I have brown eyes.'" Shrier said he told her: "You have no claim to the land of Israel."
"He wanted to intimidate me and keep me quiet," said Shrier. "I never approached him again."
Tomy Schoenfeld, who graduated from Columbia in 2004, relates how he attended an off-campus lecture by Massad, the professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at MEALAC. When Schoenfeld introduced himself as an Israeli, the professor asked, "How many Palestinians have you killed?"
"I asked him, `What? How come it's relevant to this discussion?'" Schoenfeld said in the movie. "And he said, `No, it's relevant to the discussion, and I demand an answer. How many Palestinians have you killed?' And I said, `I'm not going to answer, but I'm going to ask you a question: How many members of your family celebrated on September 11, if we're starting with stereotypes?'"
The incident Schoenfeld describes, as distressing as it may have been for him, illustrates another complicating issue: How relevant is a professor's conduct outside the classroom? Can his behavior be construed as intimidation even by students not in his class?
The issue becomes clearer when the professor in question is the head of the department that is the focus of student complaints.
The movie showed an excerpt of an article published in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram and written by the former chairman of the Middle East department, Prof. Hamid Dabashi. Referring to Israelis, Dabashi writes: "Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people. The way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world. There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture."
And in an interview with a New York-based publication called Asia Source, Dabashi said Israel "amounts to nothing more than a military base for the rising predatory empire of the United States."
In this case, Dabashi's views may have kept some students from complaining about misconduct. Until the David Project brought the student allegations to the surface, students were told to bring any complaints to the department chairman, according to the movie.
But now Columbia is working on ameliorating the grievance procedures. In December, the university president announced the formation of an ad hoc faculty committee to address accusations of anti-Israel harassment.
However, pro-Israel activists say the five committee members are too close to either the professors or their views. One of the members was Massad's dissertation adviser, and at least two have signed a petition calling for Columbia "to divest from all companies that manufacture arms and other military hardware sold to Israel" or sell the goods directly. At least eight out of 19 full-time MEALAC faculty members have signed the petition.
The university is also in the process of making the grievance procedures "user-friendly and anonymous," said Noah Liben, a recent Columbia graduate who was involved in the film.
For Liben, the main message of the movie is that Jewish and pro-Israel students "need to feel emboldened" and that intimidation will not be tolerated. "It's an issue of free discourse," he said after the Jerusalem screening. "Even one incident has a chilling effect that creates a very unhealthy atmosphere for learning. The bottom line is this has to be eradicated."